Play and Discipline

This article is part of our Member Blog Series, which showcases Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative Members' efforts and commitment to ensure that play is a critical element in the lives of people of all ages. Each month, a different member organization will share their take on how play is a part of the work they do. The Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hopes that these stories of play from our diverse set of member organizations will encourage and inspire leaders in communities, businesses, schools, and families to prioritize play every day.


Can more play in schools increase positive behavior?

We know exclusionary discipline is a problem.

The Trying Together Public Policy Agenda calls for an end to suspensions and expulsions for children birth through age eight in all early childhood settings. Our vision to eliminate exclusionary discipline focuses on preventative and responsive strategies that support healthy child development.

Data from the U.S. Education Department indicates that racial and gender disparities exist: African American boys make up 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of preschoolers suspended more than once. Disproportionate impact for African American students persists throughout the K-12 years.

Responding to the problem, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education created a policy statement to raise awareness about the negative educational and life outcomes associated with suspending students in the early years. Earlier this year the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) released its own policy statement. The announcement - Reduction of Expulsion and Suspension in Early Childhood Programs in Pennsylvania - provided guidance for early childhood programs to work with staff, community partners, and families on steps to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline. Locally, Pittsburgh Public Schools recently convened a committee to make recommendations for alternatives to suspensions for K-2 students (the PPS pre-k program already prohibits exclusionary discipline).

Many understand the harmful effects of exclusionary discipline, especially on young children, and we have seen efforts at the national, state, and local level to address this problem. Suspensions and expulsions are not developmentally appropriate ways to address negative behaviors in young children. Children cannot learn if they are excluded from places of learning. Exclusionary discipline threatens the well-being of young children during a critical period of learning and development.

The role of play

Children engage in various kinds of play, defined by NAEYC as physical play, object play, pretend or dramatic play, constructive play, and games with rules. Play provides opportunities for children to build confidence, reduce stress, explore feelings, test limits,learn to share, and form relationships with peers. Play promotes resiliency, compassion, sense of responsibility, and the capacity to solve problems.

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Play is critical for healthy child development, however, there is a discrepancy between

what is happening in the classroom with our youngest children versus what we know is best for child

development and learning.

Is the loss of play impacting children’s behavior in schools?

  • Walter Gilliam, head of the Child Study Center at Yale, found a correlation between the amount of dramatic play in preschool and expulsions rates. Less play, more expulsions.
  • A school official in New Haven attributed the increase of violence in young children to the increased emphasis on direct instruction and standardized testing at the expense of recess and playful classroom experiences.
  • A 2003 Time magazine article linked aggressive behaviors with the increased pressure testing in kindergarten and first grade.

Can integrating more play throughout the school day eliminate the use of exclusionary discipline?

Recess: Physical activity throughout the day, including recess and in class physical activity breaks, can help improve behavior. This is not the ultimate solution to eliminating suspensions, however, it is a developmentally appropriate way for children to alleviate stress. Physical activity improves attention and on-task behavior in the classroom. Research shows taking away recess as a consequence for negative behavior may be counterproductive. In fact, children who act out in the classroom may be the children who benefit from recess the most. The Journal of Educational Research released a study of fourth graders which found that students were less fidgety and more on-task if they had recess. Providing recess during the school day proactively responds to the developmental needs of young children and may address root causes of negative behaviors.

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Play in the classroom: Children authentically learn through play.

St. Paul Public elementary schools created a curriculum called “Discovering Our World.” Through this curriculum children have around 90 minutes each day to play — or “actively learn” — at their choice of stations stocked with blocks, modeling clay and art, or pretend cooking supplies.The effort began in 2013 when the school district realized kindergartners were struggling with the increasingly “formal, teacher-led instruction” and were getting kicked out of school.

An elementary principal in the district commented: “We had behavior problems constantly coming out of kindergarten. It was largely because of the inappropriateness of what we were trying to do — not letting kids be kids.”

The district saw results immediately following the implementation of the new play-based curriculum. The district found behavior improved when children got to play and kindergarten suspensions at 20 pilot schools fell by half the following year.

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Creating positive school climate with play

Educational effectiveness in early education requires educators to meet children where they are, including setting realistic behavior expectations and consequences. In addition to finding alternatives for exclusionary discipline, we must also think of ways to create more playful environments where children may be less likely to act out. Play creates a positive environment where children feel comfortable and enjoy learning.